With its touch screen and portable nature, no system was quite as perfect for the visual novel like the Nintendo DS. So perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a few games of the genre that flew under the radar during the DS’s prolific lifespan. Time Hollow for the DS never reached the same audience as the Ace Attorney or the Professor Layton games, and isn’t quite the cult classic as Hotel Dusk and Last Window. However, it’s still a decently engaging romp in its own right.
The protagonist at and holder of the hollow pen, a sophomore at Kako High-school. The game takes place on his 17th birthday.
Ethan’s father, and also holder of the hollow pen. He has aged rapidly due to a lifetime of using the hollow pen. He mysteriously disappears along with Ethan’s mother at the games intro.
Ethan’s hotheaded uncle, and also the character with probably the most character development overall. Is really a nice guy underneath, we just needed to create the right timeline.
Antique store owner and deranged serial killer that blames his mother’s death on the Kairos family. He also has a hollow pen, stalked Kori Twelves in high-school and pushed her off a roof.
Killed herself over the guilt of failing to prevent the murder of Kori Twelves. Also has a hollow pen.
Timothy Kairos pulled her through a time portal as she was falling to death, and now she is stuck outside of time, incapable of aging. Was dating Derek Kairos.
Ethan’s best friend and older brother of Ashley.
Repeated victim of kidnappings and murder by hands Irving Onegin
Has a crush on waitress at popular café, Chronos. Got into a fight and accidentally murdered the waitresses boyfriend in one reality.
Either away studying, or a high-school dropout depending on the reality. Really likes dogs.
The Waitress at Chronos who gets struck in a hit-and-run unless you steal the keys to the lock on her bike.
The story begins with Ethan Kairos on the eve of his 17th birthday. Everything in his life seems picture-perfect, with loving parents and a close-knit group of friends. His only worry is whether he’ll get the watch he wants for his birthday. After a fitful nights sleep, events take a turn for the unsettling when he wakes up in unfamiliar surroundings. His bedspread changed color, the carpet is gone, and the furniture in his room has been rearranged. But even more alarming than some late-night interior decorating, his parents have disappeared without a trace leaving him to be raised by his hot-headed uncle Derek. Mysteriously in his possession is an item called the hollow pen that allows him to freeze time and interact with the past. And so begins the adventure. Can he figure out what happened to his parents and use the hollow pen to bring them back?
By dragging the stylus on the bottom screen, Ethan uses the pen to draw a portal to the past which he can then fiddle with to change the future. Scenarios involve preventing a tragedy of some sort, usually a character’s death. You will be drawing time holes and slipping items or performing actions that alter the course of history. You will slip envelopes of money through time so characters go shopping instead of getting kidnapped, or preventing a waitress from using her bike and getting flattened in a hit-and-run. Often interacting with the past has unforeseen consequences. Preventing the waitress from getting in a hit-and-run causes a dog to die instead. Hiding a murder weapon merely changes who is hospitalized after a fight. Sometimes the consequences are quite unexpected. Like saving a childhood dog causes your best friend to drop out of high-school to start a dog-walking business, or slipping a note warning about a murderer merely places suspicion of the murder onto yourself.
With each teleport to a parallel universe, you also have a series of flashbacks: glimpses of events that occurred in the new reality. By doing detective work, you find the context for these memories, and figure the exact time and location needed to dig a time hole. This is the meat of the games puzzle solving. You spend your time searching for clues until you have all the details behind a flashback, then you find the right time and place to use the hollow pen. Detective work doesn’t require much actual sleuthing though, just some wandering around. Amble about and eventually you will bump into the right person at the right time who gives you an item or tidbit of information allowing you to progress.
The hollow pen is also something more exciting in theory. Using the pen is only allowed when it glows, so already a good chunk of the puzzle solving is eliminated when the game outright tells you when you need to use it. Puzzle solving is relegated to simply guessing where on the screen to make a hole, which usually isn’t too hard. And even when it is, the screen is only so big, you’ll find it after a guess or two. You have a health meter tied to the pen to add a little bit of tension to getting the hole just right, but it might as well not exist as there’s no danger of it depleting all the way.
The game’s story is definitely where the game picks up the slack of the underwhelming puzzles. It’s a time travel thriller, so of course it comes complete with wild twists and turns that engage the player. Events take a turn for the mysterious when you meet Kori, a girl separated from the passage of time that seems to know about the pen. Apparently Kori was pulled through a time portal by your father as she was falling to her death, a death that would otherwise lead to your uncle Derek’s suicide. This severs Kori from the passage of time so she remains ageless and stuck in the future. Kori clues you in that someone else out there has a hollow pen making changes to reality as you know it. This creates a time-traveling tug-of-war as the antagonist kills your friends and family, and you rush to save them repeatedly.
You eventually get to the bottom of things: Irving Onegin, a simple antiques dealer, is revealed to be a deranged serial killer who blames his mother’s death on your family. You have to find a way to prevent his mothers death so he doesn’t set out on his twisted revenge scheme. However, an added wrinkle complicates things: Irving’s mother, Mary Onegin, also has a hollow pen, and no matter how many times you rescue her from the bus crash, she still ends up dying. Eventually her death is revealed to be a suicide, as she can’t take the guilt over her son pushing Kori off the roof of the school, a death Mary can’t prevent no matter how hard she tries. So Mary gives up, slipping her past self a note to meet Ethan’s father, knowing she’ll get on a bus destined to crash. But Irving finds the note, and thinks Ethan’s father murdered his mother. The only way to prevent her suicide is have your uncle sacrifice himself, jumping into the time-hole and breaking Kori’s fall so she doesn’t die. Why not push a mattress through instead? Probably because that wouldn’t be as dramatic.
If this sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. Like any good pulpy time travel story, it’s complicated, has plot holes, and is inconsistent with the logic. But that’s only part of the fun. The game tackles some surprisingly mature themes in its story, from murder, stalking, obsession, and suicide. The hollow pen itself is revealed to literally sap the users life-force in order to operate, rapidly aging anyone that utilizes it. Ethan mentions getting weaker and more exhausted as the game progresses, and his life bar even becomes shorter. Oddly enough, none of the characters appear horrified by the notion, a little too eager to whittle away their already short lifespans.
Time Hollow was published by Konami in 2009, and was written by Junko Kawano. Junko Kawano is notable for also writing the PlayStation 2’s Shadow of Memories, which also dealt with a character changing the future through time travel, so obviously time travel is a theme he is passionate about. While lackluster as a puzzle game, Time Hollow is still an titillating anime experience that will keep you at the edge of your seat.